The challenging yet insanely rewarding experience of hiking Volcán Acatenango, near Antigua, Guatemala.
Hiking Volcán Acatenango was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
It was also one of the most beautiful, mesmerizing and unforgettable things I’ve ever done, so the physical and mental struggle was worth it.
After spending a month in Guatemala, I learned that hiking this volcano was many travelers’ favorite thing they did in this country. Not wanting to miss out on such an opportunity, I booked an overnight hike with Balam Tours.
Their 450 Quetzales tour ($58) is a bit more expensive than most, and normally my frugal self would take the cheapest option possible. But after reading travel blogs online and talking to people in person, I realized that paying a little extra money for a better experience was worth it in this case.
Balam Tours provided us with delicious food, warm winter clothing, walking sticks and a lovely local guide named Miguel. The hike is known for being physically demanding, and camping overnight is known for being incredibly cold. So having these extra amenities that some cheaper tour companies don’t offer turned out to be very useful.
I showed up for the hike yesterday morning feeling excited and overly optimistic, as I usually do before a treacherous hike.
The others in my group were all tall, fit-looking Europeans with proper trekking backpacks and those convertible pants that zip off into shorts. So I sort of figured these people were athletic, and this thought was confirmed as soon as we started hiking and I just had no chance of keeping up with them.
Another perk of Balam Tours: they only take a maximum of 12 people. Our group had six people: two Belgians, three Swiss and me. It was easy to stay together, because whenever I fell far behind Miguel would eventually hold everyone up and cheerfully yell “Vamos Gabby!!” as I finally started to catch up.
I’ve done a lot of hiking at this point in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever struggled as much as I did on this one.
Hiking Volcán Acatenango was difficult for a few reasons:
1. The hike begins at 1400 meters above sea level. We trekked upwards for about 10 km until we reached our campsite at 3,300 meters above sea level. So the altitude is intense, especially for me since I just came from the low-lying jungle of Semuc Champey.
2. The hike is steep the entire way. Some hiking trails slope up and down and there are breaks between the intense inclines, but not this one.
3. The terrain is pretty much just dirt, gravel and small rocks. So it is very easy to slip, especially if you aren’t wearing sturdy hiking boots (which I wasn’t).
4. Everyone else in my group was insanely fit and fast, so the pace was set pretty high for me.
Due to all these things, I found myself huffing and puffing and slipping and sliding up rocky ground for 10 km. My heart was pounding in my ears, my lungs were struggling to find oxygen and my legs were burning. The whole time.
Not to mention every time I looked up, my group members were just trotting along three hills above me like they did this every day. So I was pretty much the only one having a horrible time.
But my misery faded when we reached the campsite around 3pm. Miguel told us that most groups take about 4.5 to 5 hours to reach this point. We made it in 3 hours and 45 minutes.
So even though I was the slowest one, we still had an overall faster pace than any other group Miguel has led before.
We had passed through three different ecosystems on the way up, and the changing scenery throughout the hike distracted me from my suffering a little bit.
The hike began in Oak Forest filled with flowers and corn fields, then turned into Cloud Forest filled with thick humidity and jungle vines, then turned into Sub-Alpine Forest filled with drier air and pine trees.
We spent the evening at our campsite huddled around the fire as the temperature began to drop. Miguel served us dinner along with a glass of red wine, hot chocolate and marshmallows for roasting.
While relaxing we intently watched the nearby Volcán Fuego. Our campsite was conveniently located with a perfect view of this peak, and we eagerly waited for the eruptions. The thick clouds swirled around the volcano, sometimes filling our whole view with white and sometimes clearing briefly to reveal the monstrous peak in all its glory.
When the volcano did erupt, billows of black smoke would hurtle into the air as thundering booms echoed around us.
The evening was loud, with the rumblings of Volcán Fuego mixing with the deafening crashes of thunder. A storm enveloped us, but luckily we were too high up for the rain.
Instead we got to witness sharp streaks of lightning burst through the sky, illuminating the volcano as they cracked. It was so incredible, and I’ll keep that view of lightning bolts igniting next to a massive volcano in my mind forever (there was no way I could capture the sudden lightning bolts on camera).
As darkness fell, the eruptions became fantastic.
Red hot lava bubbled over the peak, and glistening streams of fiery orange and yellow tumbled down the side of the black gravelly volcano. Every time the lava shot upwards, which was every 10 minutes or so, we all cheered in excitement and marveled at the sight. It was like watching a nature documentary, but the scene is actually happening in front of you. It was an unforgettable evening.
After a very cold and restless sleep that night, Miguel woke us up at 3:50am so we could hike to Volcán Acatenango’s summit for sunrise. Excited to escape my frigid sleeping bag and get my numb toes moving, I once again started the hike with unrealistic optimism.
We hiked up for one hour and 15 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. The early morning was pitch black and insanely cold, and the trail was still just rocks and slippery gravel.
My chest was tight from the altitude, my headlamp kept slipping down my face and my freezing fingers could barely hold on to my walking stick, but once again my misery turned into elation when we reached the top.
Standing atop the volcano, as the horizon gleamed red with the slowly rising sun, I felt on top of the world. I had hiked the third highest volcano in Guatemala and was standing at 3,975 meters above sea level.
Volcán Fuego was still spitting lava into the sky, and the sunrise began to shed pastel light onto the nearby Volcán Agua, the third volcano in this trinity of peaks next to Antigua.
Once we got too cold to stay up there, we hiked back down to the camp to eat breakfast and begin our descent. Hiking down was easier on the lungs than hiking up, but it was definitely harder on the legs.
That consistently steep incline that I had trudged up the day before was now like a slippery death trap. This is where the walking sticks really mattered because trying to hike down steep gravel was more like just constantly tensing your leg muscles, stressing out your knees and trying not to fall.
Once again our all-star group hit a record for Miguel, making it down the volcano in 1.5 hours instead of the usual 2 – 2.5 hours. I am still in awe that I even completed that hike at all, let alone did it in record time.
As I sit in my hostel dorm bed in Antigua, ready to fly home to Boston tomorrow, I am feeling exhausted, sunburned and accomplished.
I have done high altitude hikes before, and I’ve done steep hikes before. But this was my first very steep hike that was also at high altitude. My lungs and heart probably hate me but my memory will hold that experience on Volcán Acatenango and the views of Volcán Fuego and Volcán Agua forever.
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